Joanna Tebbs Young
Circles of Community
Ori and Dena Goldberg, residents of Rutland since 2007, are both offspring of survivors of the Second World War. More specifically, Holocaust survivors. Raised in Israel, the Goldbergs themselves are also survivors of war (although they don’t consider themselves as such): the more than half-century-long stand-off with their country’s neighbor, Syria.
“There is no relationship between the two countries,” explains Ori. “It’s a stable war, a cold war. Status quo with no fighting, but a solid, inactive animosity.”
“We grew up knowing Syria was our biggest enemy, our biggest threat,” says Dena. “Under Hafez Al-Assad they had the strongest army.“
But, Dena emphatically explains, nothing is ever just black and white, and she was not raised to hate the people who happen to live in an “enemy” country.
So now, the Goldbergs want to speak out about the proposed Syrian refugee resettlement this coming October. “We don’t intend to represent all of Israel, all Jews,” says Dena, “but we do want to share our experience and our perspective. As much as this feels exposing to us, we feel passionate enough about the importance of assisting in the midst of this humanitarian crisis.”
And that perspective is well-informed. Impressively knowledgeable about the history of their country and the “very complicated story” of the Middle-East, the Goldbergs are direct and non-emotional about the refugee situation. ”It just has to happen. It’s about people.”
Dena, born in Wisconsin, where her maternal grandparents, who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz, had escaped after the war, is an American citizen. When Dena was a baby, her parents returned to Israel. There she met Ori, a classmate’s older brother. Traveling to various parts of the world both alone and together, the couple married in Cypress, and eventually moved to Connecticut.
It was here, while studying at the University of Connecticut, that Dena experienced something that influenced her greatly. “It was my first year, and I met these three girls.” The women were from Jordan, Iran, and Afghanistan, and Dena says, they “just clicked!” “We connected as people, regardless of where we were from or what we believed or who we were supposed to hate.”
This experience validated something she had been taught as part of the military training required of every Israeli citizen at age 18: To separate the civilian population from combative militants. For Dena, this distinction, the not lumping people together under one label, is key to what she believes is the only solution to continued violence: disarming hate groups and supporting humanitarian initiatives to sustain civilian populations for long-term resolutions.
Referring to the tendency of some to consider all Muslims (and even all Middle-Eastern-looking people) as terrorists, she says, “I ask people, ‘Would you like to be categorized by one tiny faction of your religion or ethnic group?” Using examples of far-right Jewish religious groups whose activities range from property confiscation to murder of innocent civilians, including children, and the Christian church who pickets the funerals of soldiers and gays, she asks, “Are all Jews members of Lehava? Are all Christians members of Westboro Baptist Church? Obviously not.”
“None of us want to be identified by the extremists in any particular group we may be a part [of],” she continues. “It is no different for the Syrians. We have the opportunity to make a difference; to allow parents to raise their children instead of fearing they’ll be torn away from them.”
It is as a mother raising three children here in Rutland — a city she praises for welcoming her family nine years ago and for the schools for making it so easy for her bi-lingual children — that Dena speaks to this last point with passion. She can’t comprehend having to make such horrendous decisions as her former neighbors are being forced to make. Referencing the movie, “Sophie’s Choice,” where a mother has to choose which of her children will be gassed while imprisoned at Auschwitz, Dena says, “It’s like that for the Syrians: ‘Do I leave and risk my child drowning, or stay and witness my daughter get raped. Again. And again?’”
While millions facing starvation, rape and murder may have been taken in by other countries — Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon to name a few — after fleeing their bombed homes, they are living in sprawling, crowded camps in conditions most of us cannot even fathom.
“Even Israel has taken in some Syrians!” laughs Dena explaining that civilians in crisis — wounded, seriously ill, and women in labor — are extracted from the border by the military and given full medical care. She goes on to tell the reaction of a friend who is a high-level employee of the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Homeland Security. According to Dena, this friend can’t even comprehend that Vermonters are having this conversation.
“It’s laughable to her.” Dena says. “She says that the likelihood of a terrorist coming to Rutland is practically nil, and doesn’t even begin to compare with the humanitarian necessity to help them.”
For this reason, the Goldbergs dismiss the threat of terrorism that some are arguing as a reason not to accept the refugees. The real terror, they believe, is what the Syrians have faced and continue to face, and what it means for the world at large. “They’ve been in hell,” says Ori.
“Accepting refugees is the most anti-terrorist thing we can do as a civilian population,” he says. “It is in a practical way going to create a much better world.”
Because, as Dena notes, helping the civilians ultimately helps the troops on the ground complete their missions to purge the extremists “from the man-made hell-holes.”
“It’s not just about Syrians,” Ori continues, “it’s just the humanitarian thing to do. We [Americans] have it all; we can sacrifice a little for those who have lost everything. It’s about people.”
Dena agrees. “The argument about the lack of resources? It is unacceptable. We are the culture of plenty. And if not taking refugees will somehow help the crisis of homelessness and veterans, please, please tell me how.”
“We’re not naive,” Dena says. “We’ve seen it, we’ve lived it. In fact, we were in Sarona Market [in Tel Aviv] with our children just three weeks before last week’s attack. We know to scan markets and buses when there. So we’re not innocently believing in a Kumbaya kind of peace; we just understand that we can no longer continue the cyclic violence of ‘us-them’ mentality.”
“The true sides,” she continues, “are those in all countries, of all ethnic groups, who want and fuel on-going conflict, versus those who don’t.
“The bottom line is, you can have the Trump version of a solution — more walls, more blockades — and you’ll get the same result. We, particularly as Israelis, have seen it enough times. We can no longer look at things as ‘us: good; them: evil;’ dehumanizing the other side. That is only going to create more of the same problem. We have the opportunity to take a crisis and create connection on a human level and break the cycle of ‘us verses them.’”